Robin Capon advises on some dry media and their working possibilities

Here are some interesting and adaptable sketching media with various characteristics in common. They are all just as good for the instant sketch as they are for a more resolved approach. They respond equally well to a spontaneous, expressive style and to a controlled, thoughtfully observed one. They are mostly soft, sensitive, blendable media which will also give fine lines when required. And they are compact, easy to carry around, inexpensive and enjoyable to use.

Perhaps a slight disadvantage is that completed sketches will normally need spraying with fixative to prevent them smudging. If you don’t like carrying fixative around with you, use some kind of spacing device, such as an old card mount, in the sketchbook to stop the completed sketch touching the next page. However, do remember to fix pastel and charcoal sketches once back in the studio. Now let’s look at each of these media.


Charcoal is a wonderful sketching medium which will encourage you to work with great sensitivity and feeling, whatever your style or approach. It is surprisingly versatile and its potential is matched by its forgiving nature. Mistakes are easily erased and overworked tones lifted out with a putty rubber. What I particularly like is that, if necessary, charcoal allows me to suggest the general shapes and mood of an idea with just a few lines and tones. I find it splendid for location sketches in the winter, when one wants to carry the minimum of equipment and not stand around too long. See Illustration 1.

There are three main types of charcoal – stick charcoal, compressed charcoal and charcoal pencils. All three are good for sketching and can be used independently or combined. For example, as in Illustration 2, when a more resolved approach is desired, it is possible to use stick charcoal for broad sweeps of tone and the general indication of different surface textures, while adding finer lines and details with a charcoal pencil. Sketches in charcoal will be linear or tonal, though colour reference can be added with controlled washes, pastel or pencil shading.

Illustration 2. Here I have used a combination of stick charcoal for the general areas and charcoal pencil for defining edges and adding some accents of stronger tone and suggestions of detail. I have used the sharp edge of a wedge-shaped eraser to draw into the charcoal shading to indicate different shapes and create highlights 11" x 7.5"

Stick charcoal is inexpensive and always handy, if not for sketching then for adding softer, grey tones to pencil or pastel drawings. If you are new to charcoal, experiment to see what marks and tones it will make. Try variations of pressure and holding the stick at different angles, as well as using a broken-off length on its side for general shading.

You will find that you can smudge and blend the dusty charcoal deposit with your fingers or a piece of cotton wool, paper or cloth. You can also draw into charcoal tones with a clean wedge-shaped eraser and lift out highlights and soften tones with a putty eraser.

The handling characteristics, techniques and effects possible with stick charcoal will be influenced by the kind of paper being used, so test different surfaces. A smooth paper, such as layout paper or bond paper, is fine for perfectly blended tones and subtle effects, while a heavy quality paper, like 300gsm watercolour paper or various pastel papers, will give broken lines and greater textural possibilities. Try working on coloured paper too.

Compressed charcoal is harder, denser and less likely to break than willow charcoal. Compressed charcoal, like the other varieties, is best applied sparingly, building strengths of tone up gradually. Charcoal pencils are also usually less brittle than stick charcoal. You can sharpen these like ordinary pencils and, by using the side of the drawing tip as well as its point, create a wide range of marks and shading effects. Charcoal pencils won’t smudge or erase as easily as stick charcoal. Use them for smaller, perhaps more detailed sketches and for adding definition to other works made in charcoal or pastel.


I occasionally use several different kinds of crayons for sketching, mainly when I want to make tonal studies or produce a quick response to an idea.

A favourite of mine is black Conté crayon, as shown in Illustration 3. Conté crayons, which are made from pigment and graphite bound with gum and grease, produce a result not unlike charcoal, though they are oily and less inclined to smudge. They are also harder and more resilient than charcoal. Because the sticks are square-sectioned you can create quite delicate fine lines as well as the loosely shaded areas. The best method of sketching with Conté crayons is to break off a piece of about 1” (25mm) long and, as shown, create general areas of shading with the side and more sensitive, expressive lines with a sharp edge or corner.

I recently discovered Stones Crayons which are impressive. They are lithographic crayons. As Illustration 4 shows, the crayons are very sensitive to pressure and will give a range of lines and marks. You can use them like soft sketching pencils and sharpen them in the same way, though the quality of the lines resembles Conté crayons.

Illustration 4. This sketch was made with a Stones lithographic crayon on ordinary cartridge paper 8.5" x 5". These crayons can be fitted into a special holder and used rather like pencils. In fact, they can be sharpened with an ordinary pencil sharpener. They give a smooth, sensitive line and will not smudge.

Black wax crayons and oil pastels will give similar results. They can also be useful for colour sketches, though I am wary of their intense colours. Oil pastels are among the most direct and independent of the colour sketching media and especially suit bold and decorative subjects. They do not need fixing, which is a plus point when one is out sketching. A good way to subdue the colours and produce a more accurate colour reference is to work on a grey, light blue or sepia pastel paper.


Colour reference is often extremely important in sketching, especially when tackling the transient nature of a cloudy sky or a similar subject. Soft pastels are a quick, effective colour sketching medium and they are particularly good for capturing the essentials of a scene, its mood and atmosphere. Like charcoal, pastels are splendid for spontaneous, vigorous sketches and they are extremely versatile. For example, you can work in simple terms, perhaps for a quick contour drawing, or take your time to develop carefully blended areas of colour and a more painterly overall effect. I often make a pastel sketch as a preliminary to a watercolour painting. This is a good way of getting to know the subject and discovering points about composition, colour and so on.

Pastels are made in square and round sticks, usually about 6cm long, and the dry, dusty colour is opaque. I prefer the square pastels, which are firmer and will give sharp lines and accents as well as general areas of colour. Also, the square pastels do not break so easily when being carried around – a distinct advantage if, like me, you carry them loose in a pocket. You can use pastels in a similar way to charcoal, applying the colour gradually and fading or blending by lightly rubbing with your fingers. Keep to a limited palette and preferably work on a slightly coarse or textured paper. Overworked areas can be reduced by dabbing them with a putty eraser and highlights lifted out in the same way.

Useful reference

The three pastel sketches I have included (Illustrations 5 to 7) demonstrate some of the possibilities. In Illustration 5 I used just six colours on ordinary typing paper. I sometimes use a pad of typing paper fixed to an A4 clipboard as my sketchpad. Here, the pastels were mainly applied as direct colour; only in parts of the foreground was the colour overworked or blended. In the distance, the pastel just catches the surface of the paper to create a slight mark or texture, so suggesting a feeling of depth.

The landscape view in Illustration 6 was meant to be a watercolour, but the weather was too hot for painting, so I opted to use what few pastels I had with me, working on a sheet of 300gsm watercolour paper. The paper wasn’t ideal for a quick sketch and I found the only solution was to fill the surface with a generous application of colour, working this into the paper then lifting out the lights. It provided me with a useful reference sketch, even if a little high key.

Illustration 6. A location pastel study made on a sheet of Daler Langton 300gsm watercolour paper. 8.5" x 11". Various techniques have been used, including working the pastel into the paper surface with a piece of cotton wool and lifting out marks and highlights with an eraser.

Finally in Illustration 7, I used water-soluble pastels. With these, the colour is applied dry and then different areas are wetted with a brush and clean water to create washes and similar watercolour effects. If weak washes of colour and an atmospheric effect are intended, as in my sketch, then the initial pastel colour must be applied sparingly. Once wetted, the pastel will respond like watercolour, so areas can be lifted out and manipulated as desired.

Illustration 7. Water-soluble pastels are extremely versatile. As here, you can combine light washes of colour and other 'watercolour' effects with dry colour applied as lines and broken tones. This sketch was made with Faber-Castel Albrecht Durer Aquarele Sticks, 6" x 9.5"

You can also mix colours or washes by using a wet brush against the side of a crayon or by shading some pastel on to a scrap piece of paper, wetting it and then transferring the diluted colour to your sketch.



This article is taken from Leisure Painter October 1997